Dangerous Interference With Press Freedom
May 21, 2014
We’re deeply worried about the fate and whereabouts of these three journalists. Detaining journalists and then failing to provide information on what’s happening to them or to respect their due process rights are serious violations that have to end.
Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director

(Moscow) – Ukrainian military and security services have detained three journalists with Russian news services, and border police have denied three more entry to Ukraine in recent days.

Ukrainian authorities should immediately explain why they detained the journalists. It should ensure their prompt release, or, if there are credible grounds for bringing charges against them, promptly bring them before a judge so they can be charged and released pending an investigation. Ukraine should also stop arbitrarily denying journalists from Russian news outlets, including Russian state media, access to the country.

“We’re deeply worried about the fate and whereabouts of these three journalists,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Detaining journalists and then failing to provide information on what’s happening to them or to respect their due process rights are serious violations that have to end.”

Ukrainian authorities should immediately make public on what legal basis these journalists are being held, make sure that they have the full protection of the law, and give them access to their lawyers and consular officers, Human Rights Watch said. Failure to provide information on the whereabouts and fate of anyone deprived of their liberty by agents of the state, or those acting with its acquiescence, may constitute an enforced disappearance.

On May 20, 2014, Russia Today (RT), a Russian state television service, lost contact with their contract writer, Graham Phillips, a United Kingdom national, after he called to say he had been detained by the Ukrainian National Guard at a checkpoint in Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine. RT told Human Rights Watch that the next day the Interior Ministry told RT producers that Defense Ministry agents had detained Phillips.

A published RT statement said that during Phillips’ May 20 phone call with RT, he said he was “being treated OK…. They’ve done checks on my documentation, they found my reports and clips I’ve done and they’re now looking through them asking me my position on things, asking if I’m a spy….” The statement also said the men who detained Phillips were not satisfied with the letter he presented from RT confirming that he works for the television service.

The British government should immediately call on Ukrainian authorities to free Phillips and meanwhile provide him access to the British consulate and a lawyer of his own choosing, Human Rights Watch said.

“RT’s reporting may not be well received by some in Kiev, but it is totally unacceptable and a blatant violation of freedom of expression to arrest journalists simply for the content or tone of their reporting,” Denber said. “Worse still is to turn an arbitrary detention into an enforced disappearance by concealing all information about where the journalist is and what’s happening to him.”

As this went to press, RT announced that Phillips would be handed over to the British consulate and that the Ukraine Security Service’s (SBU) proceedings against him were “over.”

On May 18, the Ukrainian National Guard detained Marat Saichenko and Oleg Sidyakin, reporters with Life News, near Kramotorsk. A Life News public statement said that as the journalists were being detained, Sidyakin managed to send a text message that something had gone wrong and then left his cell phone open so Life News could hear him and Saichenko explain to their captors that they are journalists and are not involved in any fighting.

On May 20, a spokeswoman for the SBU acknowledged at a public briefing that the SBU was interrogating the men. The spokeswoman claimed that the men were not engaged in journalism in Ukraine but rather “accompanying terrorists and broadcasting their unlawful actions.” She also said that Sidyakin and Saichanko had acknowledged that they entered Ukraine without any media accreditation and had told border that police that the purpose of their visit was to attend a concert. The spokeswoman did not provide any information about whether the men had been formally detained, and if so, where, or their status.

On May 21, a video appeared on YouTube featuring Saichenko, who is the head of the Life News photo service, stating that when he and Sidyakin entered Ukraine they told border officials they were going to a concert and deliberately did not say that they were journalists because they feared they would be denied entry. He also said that they intentionally left their journalists’ accreditation in Russia.

Sidyakin and Saichenko had been filming in areas controlled by insurgents and had broken a story alleging that a Ukrainian National Guard helicopter bore a fake United Nations insignia. A lawyer representing Sidyakin and Saichenko told Human Rights Watch that she has not been able to find them in either of the SBU holding facilities in Kiev and that when she phoned the agency in Kiev, an official told her the two were not in the registry. She is still waiting for the agency to reply to a complaint she had filed on May 20 about its failure to provide her with information about her clients or to grant her access to them.

“The video featuring Saichenko only raises more questions than it answers about Sidyakin and Saichenko’s whereabouts and well-being,” Denber said.

On May 21 the lawyer filed a missing persons report about the two journalists with the Interior Ministry.

Ukrainian authorities should immediately clarify the whereabouts of Saichenko and Sidyakin and if lawful charges are being pursued against them, Human Rights Watch said. In failing to do so, the authorities are committing acts of enforced disappearance, which are absolutely prohibited under international law and a violation of multiple human rights obligations. If the authorities intend to pursue charges against the journalists, they need to strictly adhere to due process and provide them urgent access to their lawyer and consul.

On May 20, Ukrainian border police at Kiev’s airport prevented three journalists from RT’s Arabic service from entering Ukraine to cover the May 25 presidential election. One of the three, Anna Knishenko, told Human Rights Watch she showed the officials her accreditation from Ukraine’s Central Election Commission, hotel bookings, airline tickets, and the like. After questioning the journalists, the border official left the room. When he returned, he said that his senior officer said they should not be allowed to enter, with no further explanation. “You have your work, and we have ours,” he told them.

Human Rights Watch also spoke to four other journalists from independent news outlets – including Kommersant, Rosbalt, and Russian Reporter – who were denied entry to Ukraine under similar circumstances between March and May. While Ukraine has a right to control who enters its country, refusal of entry on arbitrary or discriminatory grounds such as nationality or political opinion is inconsistent with the exercise of that right under international human rights law.

Ukraine is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of which prohibit arbitrary detention and protect freedom of expression. While these rights may be subject to exceptional and temporary restrictions, known as derogations, in a state of emergency such restrictions must be only those “strictly required by the exigencies of the situation.” The prohibition on enforced disappearances is absolute and no circumstances can ever justify such acts.

To be legitimate, any restrictions to rights and freedoms during a state of emergency must be specified by law, demonstrably necessary for the purpose of protecting a legitimate aim, in a manner that is proportionate to protect that aim, for a specific period of time to meet the exigencies of the situation, and subject to judicial review. Ukraine has not made any declaration about restrictions on any rights that would comply with these criteria, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Ukrainian authorities need to stop the arbitrary detention of journalists and provide information on what has happened to those already detained,” Denber said. “And the Ukrainian authorities should stop blocking journalists from covering the events in Ukraine, including the upcoming election.”